One of the most common questions asked about boater safety is whether or not you have to wear a life jacket on a boat, and what, exactly, qualifies as a boat. Does a kayak count? What about a 20 foot skiff?
In this post I’ll address these questions, as well as present why you should always wear a life jacket.
Do You Have to Wear a Life Jacket on a Boat?
The short answer: no.
All boats, commercial and recreational, are required to carry one USCG approved life jacket on board for every passenger, but passengers are not required by law to wear them.
Life jackets are required to be sized correctly for each passenger which means that simply carrying a few large inflatable life vests on board will not meet the requirements if there are children or small passengers on board as well. Remember that inflatable life jackets are not approved for children under 16.
Boats over 20 ft (note: this length may vary by state) must also carry a throwable flotation device within arms reach of the cockpit.
What About Kayaks, Canoes, and Other Small Craft?
The statement above applied to all craft, regardless of size or position (inland vs. offshore) in the water.
Kayaks and canoes are required to carry life preservers on board for every passenger, and these life jackets must be easily accessible.
You Aren’t Required To Wear a Life Jacket, but You Should
Just because the law does not require you to wear a life jacket while on board a boat does not mean that you should forget about wearing one.
In recent years the Coast Guard has run a major campaign to try to increase awareness about wearing life jackets. In the event that someone is knocked overboard, a life vest can only function if the person is actually wearing it!
You can read more on some surprising accident statistics here.